Norfolk, Virginia: Revisiting the story of Elias Jasper

Gravestone of Elias Jasper, Mount Olive Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 5, 2012. All rights reserved.

The gravestone of Elias Jasper is located in Mount Olive Cemetery, established in the late nineteenth-century by Richard Gault Leslie Paige and other trustees, for the burials of African American citizens in the Berkley district of Norfolk, Virginia.

Simple curiosity prompted my first visit to Mount Olive, on a sunny day in early March, 2012. At the time, I thought of the cemetery as the “other” Mount Olive, as I had begun a reconstruction of the interment database for Mount Olive Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia, the burial site of some of our oldest paternal ancestors.

Elias’ tablet headstone, erected by his nieces and/or nephews, contains a wonderful incription, with his vital statistics, and the phrase, “Sorrow vanquised, labor ended, Jordan passed.” Perhaps I was fortunate to find it, as there have been documented disturbances of graves in Mount Olive Cemetery over the course of its storied history. In 1900, the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt LIne Railroad Company was accused of the destruction of numerous graves in a 1.200-foot section of the cemetery.

The Belt Line Railroad Company in extending its switch in the Union Stock Yards has cut their road-bed through the colored cemetery. In doing this the company has passed through about 400 yards of the old cemetery, and in some instances took an entire lot for the road-bed. The colored people who owned lots in this cemetery, in which their dead are buried, claim that in several instances the coffins were not removed, but graded over, and cross-ties were laid within a few inches of the caskets; hence these lot owners have secured the services of Judge George D. Markey, and will bring suit against the company to recover damages. The colored people say that Dick Paige, one of the cemetery trustees, sold the railroad company a right of way without even consulting the persons most concerned. It is said by some that Paige provided a place to which the coffins were to be re-buried.

The Virginian-Pilot

Upon visual inspection of his gravestone, I noticed that Elias was born in 1822, and later checked to see if he’d served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. Interestingly, I found a record for an “Elias Jasper,” recorded on May 9, 1865, Hart Island, Bronx, New York. He enlisted with the 25th U. S. Colored Infantry, and mustered in on the same day at Buffalo, New York.1 His enlistment came a little over one month after the Fall of Richmond to Union forces on April 3, 1865. The enlistment record notes that Elias Jasper was a thirty-four year old carpenter from Hampton, Virginia. To ensure that I’d found the correct Elias, I reviewed additional documentation, including a New York Civil Draft registration, which also noted Elias as a thirty-four year old carpenter from Hampton, who’d enlisted with the 25th U. S. Colored Infantry at Buffalo on May 29th. Ultimately, Elias was not taken up on the rolls of the regiment, and was discharged from service. He returned to Tidewater, Virginia soon thereafter, and was documented as a resident of Norfolk, Virginia by 1869.

New York Civil Draft registration of Elias Jasper, 1865.

By 1870, Elias was documented in Norfolk’s Third Ward, and worked as a carpenter. He married Miss Adeline Butt, daughter of Moses and Mary Butt of (former) Norfolk County, Virginia, on January 16, 1872. Per the marriage record, Elias’ parents were Dolphin and Judy Jasper. I located a Dolphin Jasper, born about 1795, and his wife Phillis, aged sixty-seven, in the 1870 Census for Norfolk’s Second Ward. Both were documented as domestic servants.2

Elias Jasper Family Tree

In 1880, Elias was documented in a residence on Queen Street, Norfolk. In the census record, he was noted as a widower, with a “nondescript” occupation, though city directories list him as a cabinetmaker.3 Elias never remarried, and passed away on February 25, 1887. To date, I have not been able to identify any direct descendants of Elias nor extended family, but an “S. Robinson,” noted as Elias’ sister, was the informant at the time of his death.

(Tip: Use the zoom in/out feature to follow in Elias’ footsteps from Hampton, Virginia, to Buffalo and Hart Island, New York, and return to Norfolk, Virginia)

Elias had lived an eventful life. Born into slavery, he’d somehow made his way to Buffalo, New York during the Civil War, to fight for freedom. Upon his return to Tidewater, he’d married, and enjoyed a succesful career as an accomplished carpenter. For years, this is what I knew of Elias Jasper, carpenter, traveler, husband, and beloved uncle. That is, until just a week ago, when I happened upon an interesting article, and realized Elias’ headstone had one more tale to tell. Elias Jasper was also an inventor.

Dubbed a “mechanical genius” in 1878, Elias was the subject of a story written for the People’s Advocate, an African American newspaper based in Alexandria, Virginia and Washington, D. C., founded by John Wesley Cromwell (1846-1927) of Portsmouth, Virginia.

Born a slave, of course, he is without any particular mental training; but more industrious and persevering work is not to be found. Since emancipation he has contrived many simple and useful things. It would repay one to visit Jasper’s workshop, in the western part of the city. Here he has modeled his idea of a rotary grate, for the fire place, designed to take the place of the stationary grate now in use. It is not exactly a self-feeder, but by a little attention, it can be kept going in it for a long while, and when the fire is low, by a revolution it will rekindle it without filling the room with dust and ashes. The most ingenious of all his inventions is his revolving foot mat for door carriages, vehicles, &c. It is so contrived that by placing the foot upon it a muddy shoe or boot is instantly cleaned, and the dirt carried to a pan below. He has added an invisible hinge, intended to fill the place of the cumbrous hinge now used on pianos, fancy boxes, show cases, desks, &c. Among his wonderful inventions is a magic lantern, whose peculiar properties are to exhibit card photographs, life size on the bare wall of the drawing room or parlor. He’s now modeling an attempt at perpetual motion; his intention is to supplant the steam portable engine. Besides, he has invented a portable ceiling hook, a picture nail and a mouse trap, which has proven efficient in relieving houses of those quadrupeds.

Elias’ mechanical ingenuity was already well-established prior to the feature in the People’s Advocate. “Elias Jasper, a negro of Norfolk, has invented a new handsaw, which worked by a lever, moves with great swiftness,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1869. “A Norfolk, Va., negro has invented a hand-saw that works by foot-power,” wrote the Muscatine Weekly Journal of Iowa. As I reviewed this exciting new information, I realized I would likely know nothing of this fascinating aspect of Elias’ life, were it not for his (extant) headstone resting in Mount Olive Cemetery. As I glanced over the article, Elias’ name resonated with me because I’d visited his gravesite, which remains the last tangible evidence of his life and handiwork. The site of Elias’ workshop, a must-see according to the article in 1878, currently rests under the parking lot of the MacArthur Center.

I’ve written previously on African American cemeteries and burial grounds functioning as the last vestige of African American lives and contributions to American history, and it remains a salient point, for the majority of Black cemeteries. Elias’ journey is just one of Mount Olive’s countless stories of lives well lived, yet historically, not equally respected. Today, preservation initiatives and memorial celebrations continue at Mount Olive, largely spearheaded by the community and volunteers. In February, 2016, the Berkley Historical Society, Inc., local churches, elected officials, and descendants, came together to celebrate and honor Elias Jasper, his wife, Adeline, and all the ancestors interred in Mount Olive. Collectively, the alliance dedicated a beautiful and lasting monument to their memory.

Photo: Nadia K. Orton, April 9, 2016. All rights reserved.

  1. The 31st U. S. Colored Infantry regiment was organized on Hart Island on April 29, 1864. A prison for Confederate soldiers was established there in 1865. In 1868, forty-five acres were purchased by the State of New York for a potter’s field, for burials of the indigent and/or unclaimed persons. Today, the cemetery is one of the largest in the country. See: The Hart Island Project,
  2. Dolphin Jasper, aged 102, and Phillis Jasper, aged 80, were documented in the 1880 Census on Botetourt Street, Norfolk. A “David Jasper,” aged 103, died on April 3, 1881, per Norfolk City death records.
  3. “1880 U. S. Census,” database with images, Ancestry ( : accessed 8 July 2021); Virginia, Norfolk, Norfolk, Dist. 023, p. 25, citing, “Year: 1880; Census Place: Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia; Roll: 1381; Page: 454C; Enumeration District: 073.”

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